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How Can We Use Summer to Keep Students Learning?

With schools across the country shuttered for the foreseeable future, educators and policymakers are looking toward summer as a chance to catch students up and keep them learning. But what are the best ways to use the summer months? FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis Jordan put the question to Aaron Dworkin, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association.

What does your research and experience tell us about the impact of lost instructional time over the summer, especially for disadvantaged students?

 The RAND Corporation released one of the largest-ever summer-learning studies recently. They found that lower-income students experience greater setbacks over the summer compared to wealthier peers. And while most kids do lose some math skills over the summer, poor children lose reading and math skills, compounding the achievement gaps that we're concerned about.

 Is that because they don't have the same resources available to them as more affluent kids?

 Absolutely. There are different studies showing how much more money middle and upper-middle-class parents spend on the educational experiences of their children over the summer. Lower-income students have fewer resources, and less access to opportunity. In the moment we're in with so many parents at home with their kids, there's a lot of empathy for the experience millions of families face over the summer. Even those families that do have a lot of resources are struggling to navigate quarantine.

Given our current situation, how can summer learning programs help?

We’re in an economic crisis, a health crisis, and an education crisis, all at once. Nobody knows what the impact of coronavirus will be and what the timeline is. Should the crisis subside, we may see a greater demand for summer programs this year and a greater need than ever to help students heal, play, explore and make up for learning losses.

Research shows that students who regularly attend free, five to six-week, voluntary summer learning programs see improvements in math and reading. What we know for sure is that high quality summer programs—informal or formal—offer opportunities for social, emotional and academic growth.

The stimulus bill cites summer learning as one of the allowable uses for spending the money, and we're working with lots of school districts to maximize the summer months.

What sort of community organizations could you tap?

There are so many summer-learning organizations in every category: the arts, literacy,  STEM, sports, and health. Coming out of this crisis, we will first and foremost need to tend to the hearts and emotions of our young people who have been isolated during this crisis.  The mental health community will play a large part in the support students will need.

On the learning front, the question is how do you blend enrichment with instruction that helps students catch-up and stay engaged in learning. There's now an openness and understanding that things like that might need to be done. Learning takes place in many different settings and entities like the YMCAs, parks and recreation departments, libraries and even public housing communities.

Can summer camps—either sleep away or day camps—be used to inject learning into the summer?

There are lot of examples of using certified teachers in camp settings.  The Fresh Air Fund in New York has a program that combines summer school and summer camp. In Boston, they did a huge initiative where Outward Bound programs were hiring public school teachers for math and English classes. These are the kind of innovative partnerships that allow people to meet kids where they are.

Can you do any of this if the “stay-at home” orders persist into the summer?

There are so many unknowns and variables and we’re all in the mode of playing out various scenarios. Are kids going to be able to travel through their communities? If there's a summer program that was typically in person, what’s the pivot to an online model look like? How would we imagine a hybrid model where some programming is online and some of it is in person?

So there's a lot of contingency planning going on right now, including the foremost priority of supporting the basic needs of students like meals, housing and learning supports.  This same approach would continue if stay at home orders persist into summer.

What about teenagers whose summer learning takes the form of youth employment programs or summer internships?

 Typically many communities would be actively launching their summer youth employment programs around this time, but this situation makes this nearly impossible to predict what direction summer youth employment programs will take.

I was just on a call with summer youth employment directors who were considering what a virtual summer job would look like. Do students get paid and earn credit? And what other kinds of classes can you offer and make as a requirement so students are doing their summer jobs but also having chances to keep learning or get course credit.

That’s why it’s important to have a summer learning task force or some group of leaders who can be thinking around the corner, a few months down the road. Identifying best-case examples, scenarios, and the resources needed to support young people.

Given that there are limited resources, should this effort be focused on all students or targeted toward those who are already struggling or toward low-income and disadvantaged kids?

We want to see all students having these opportunities, but when it comes down to resources, we want to focus on the students who have the least resources and make sure that they're the ones who are involved. Making sure there are positive, enriching experiences for young people is something families with higher incomes have always done. Some other families don't have the money to sign their kids up for a program or a camp or send them here or send them there.

Since it's summer, what should be the mix of play and learning? Is there a need, especially when it's so hot, to make sure part of the summer learning program is fun?

Absolutely. It has to feel different and look different and it's a longer day. You want to make it more interactive, you want to make it more hands-on. Ultimately, you want students to take ownership of their own learning, to pursue their interests and passions while seeing real world connections to what they’re learning and exploring.

So even if you have a sport or some kind of game that they're playing, how do you tie it to the math concepts? That's the opportunity you have in the summer to use the time to make real world connections and most importantly have young people connect with caring adults.

It sounds like this ties into the growing emphasis on the social-emotional dimensions of learning.

Absolutely. This summer, in particular, we’ll see a great need to focus on healing and supports for young people. There's a lot of research on this. The Wallace Foundation has put out a lot of great material on evidence-based practices and programs that have done this well. Also, the National Academy of Sciences, just came out with a report this year on summer learning. It looked at all the opportunities to support social-emotional learning, academic learning, health, and career exploration. There are a lot of programs doing that effectively.

Ultimately, these programs are a chance to build community. They sometimes do an even better job at that than school systems because they’re smaller and can be more intimate for students to get more personalized support and the space to connect with caring adults that grow their passions and interests.

If a district doesn't have the resources or capacity to do this themselves, are there less-intensive approaches they can use, like assigning a book for everybody to read?

Of course, not every district has the resources to do everything that I'd recommend. But there are a lot of programs that make their resources available to students for free. And then you want to scale from there. There's a lot of creative partnership-building. It's about finding what the resources are in your community, what you have access to, what your local universities are doing. I've also told a lot of summer programs that we need to get up to speed as almost a social service agency. Parents are asking districts, "How do I fill out my unemployment paperwork?"

What role can philanthropy play?

Philanthropy is a great leverage point in every community, especially at this point in time where investments are critical to helping sustain programs beyond this crisis. Funders can be conveners, they also can be early investors. They’re like the R&D, research and development for society. They can make some bets and see what works. There are some long-term positives about investing in summer programs. In the current climate there's a chance to be more creative and innovative, and to find and test out strategies before you roll it out school-wide, or school district-wide.

If you're entrepreneurial in education, you are drawn to the summer space because it gives you more time and more flexibility to try and to create some new experiences educationally for young people.